A Brave Guatemalan Judge Challenges Corrupt Brass Hats

Original article can be found here.

Something new and promising happened in Guatemala last month when Judge Marco Tulio Molina Lara sentenced ex-Army Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz to 14 years in prison for trafficking in cocaine. Mr. Ochoa Ruiz is one of at least 31 current or former Guatemalan military officers the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has suspected of running drugs. But no Guatemalan officer of his rank has ever received such a lengthy sentence. He has one final appeal available, which may yet set him free.

In American eyes, Mr. Ochoa Ruiz is a recidivist criminal. In 1990, DEA special agents set him up in a sting operation; they claim that he sent half of a metric ton of cocaine, worth $7.5 million wholesale, to Tampa, Fla. He was indicted in absentia in federal court. The U.S. demanded his extradition but after Guatemala’s top judge ruled in favor of the extradition and was subsequently murdered, the ruling was later reversed by the same high court. The murder remains unsolved. Mr. Ochoa Ruiz was caught running cocaine again three years later, leading to his arrest and last month’s conviction.

Guatemala has a major problem bringing present or former military officers suspected of felonies to justice. “Guatemalan military officers strongly suspected of trafficking in narcotics rarely face criminal prosecution,” wrote the State Department in 1994, complaining that suspects like the former Lt. Col. Ochoa Ruiz were merely discharged from military service. “In most cases, the officers continue on with their suspicious activities.”

The Clinton administration has largely chosen to ignore military involvement in Guatemalan drug trafficking, in part because for much of its first term it was focusing on a peace agreement, finally concluded in 1997, to end Guatemala’s 35-year civil war. It feared that raising the impunity issue would disrupt the peace process. Earlier this year the State Department reported that Guatemalan traffickers are now moving 200 to 300 metric tons of Colombian cocaine a year to northern markets, up sharply from about 50 tons in the early 1990s. That is, according to State Department officials, at least half of all the cocaine reaching the U.S. Most of the cocaine coming in through Mexico transits through Guatemala as well.

Former or current military officers, who for years have enjoyed a high degree of impunity, often protect Guatemalan criminal syndicates. According to a signed petition from Guatemalan peasants that was presented to the DEA, one syndicate led by military officers and a mayor killed locals who resisted abandoning the land they farmed, which the trafficking syndicate wanted for clandestine runways. Ex-mayor Arnoldo Vargas Estrada was later convicted of drug trafficking in federal court in New York. The four Army colonels named by the peasants in the same petition were never charged anywhere.

Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu undertook to clean house in the military when he began his four-year term in 1996. The State Department reports that last year he discharged even more “military officers thought to be involved in corruption and smuggling.” But one of the bravest steps taken by anyone in Guatemala so far was last month’s sentencing of Mr. Ochoa Ruiz by Judge Molina Lara. It was the Bush administration that first requested Mr. Ochoa Ruiz’s extradition in 1991. The Guatemalan military later discharged him explicitly to put distance between his name and the institution. But that did not stop a military tribunal from inexplicably reclaiming jurisdiction over the former officer in 1993 in order to dismiss the U.S. extradition case against him, citing a “lack of evidence.”

The Clinton administration appealed the case three times, all the way to Guatemala’s top judicial body, the Constitutional Court. The presiding judge, Epaminondas González Dubon, was already well respected for his integrity, having made a historic, independent ruling in 1993 when he declared unconstitutional the imposition of martial law by the country’s then-president, Jorge Serrano. Mr. Ochoa Ruiz’s extradition case reached Judge González Dubon’s bench less than a year later, and in March 1994 he signed an order to extradite the former officer and circulated it to the court’s other judges to sign as well. On April 1, as Mr. González Dubon was returning with his family from an Easter day-trip, four men assassinated him as his wife and son looked on.

How did the Clinton administration react? Neither President Clinton nor his ambassador to Guatemala, Marilyn McAfee, said a word about it. They remained silent when, on April 12, the Constitutional Court’s surviving judges quietly overturned the late Judge González Dubon’s ruling and set Mr. Ochoa Ruiz free. Apparently the Clinton administration saw no reason to publicly protest this reversal of its efforts to bring a suspected drug trafficker to justice.

Four months later, in the Village Voice I accused another military officer, Gen. Carlos Pozuelos Villavicencio, the former Air Force commander, of allegedly using military aircraft to transship cocaine. In a hastily called press conference, Guatemala’s then-defense minister, Gen. Mario René Enríquez, threatened to spend his “last personal penny” suing me for libel. Ambassador McAfee called her own press conference two days later and announced that Gen. Pozuelos Villavicencio was indeed a DEA suspect. The general was never charged nor did any lawsuit ever materialize.

Some important gains have been made under President Arzu, but Guatemala still has a long way to go and fear is still an overriding consideration for all judges. The record of impunity is one reason Colombian traffickers have made alliances, with Guatemalan military officers. Considering the price paid to finally convict Mr. Ochoa Ruiz, it is no wonder that the cocaine traffic through Guatemala expanded so rapidly.

Mr. Smyth, a contributor to “Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know,” (Norton,
1999) writes regularly for Intellectual-Capital.com.